Dehydroepiandrosterone, more commonly known as DHEA, is a hormone that some lifters take in supplement form. Bodybuilders specifically may take DHEA to help them build muscle or maintain muscle while losing body fat. After all, the hormone is linked to testosterone production, so taking extra DHEA, it’s thought, will help improve the production of T.
But here’s the thing, nothing will help you carve out your dream physique if your diet and training program aren’t in check. Assuming you’ve got those two things under control, then keep reading on whether or not DHEA can help you reach your physique-related goals.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for the diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine.
What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the second-most abundant circulating steroid in humans, and it serves as the primary precursor for other hormones such as testosterone and estrogens. (2) Most DHEA is made in the adrenal glands, but the testes, ovaries, and other organs can also produce smaller amounts.
Your DHEA production begins at puberty, peaks around age 20, and starts to decline rapidly when you’re about 25. (6) By the time you’re 75, the amount of DHEA in your bloodstream will be 80% lower than it was when you were 25. Production of testosterone and estrogen also slow down as a result. These changes all play a role in age-related losses of muscle mass and bone density, and could also contribute to cognitive decline (like memory and mood). (1)(6)
DHEA plays many roles in the body, from regulating inflammation to insulin sensitization and muscle growth. Results from animal studies quickly launched supplemental DHEA into the spotlight. In reality, supplemental DHEA is neither a panacea nor total pseudoscience. It could be helpful for some populations (but not the young, recreational exercisers looking for that extra advantage).
What Are the Effects of DHEA?
Despite its testosterone-enhancing effects, DHEA supplementation doesn’t improve performance or muscle mass in healthy, young recreational exercisers. It could be of some use for elderly adults.
More Circulating DHEA, Testosterone, Estrogen, and IGF-1
DHEA supplementation increases circulating DHEA levels in almost every study, and in many studies, elevations in testosterone also occur. Changes in estrogen and testosterone are less reliable, though, and most of the notable effects are seen in specific populations.
Higher testosterone has been reported in men and women of all ages, but you’ll see the most significant effects if you are a healthy, premenopausal female under the age of 60. (2)(3)(6)(7) DHEA also raises testosterone levels in elderly women. Regardless of age, men are less likely to see significant elevations in their testosterone levels due to DHEA supplements.
Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) is an anabolic hormone that has also been shown to increase due to DHEA supplementation but only with long-term use in healthy women over 60. (12)
Changes in Body Composition
Even though DHEA supplementation often leads to higher testosterone levels, it doesn’t have a substantial effect on body composition. Elevations in lean body mass are minimal, and they don’t occur at all in young, healthy, active participants.
According to one meta-analysis, DHEA supplementation led to reductions in body weight (about 0.5 kilograms) and elevations in lean body mass (about 0.7 kilograms), but all participants were older women. (6)
In another analysis with a more diverse population, DHEA supplementation was similarly effective for improving lean body mass, but it didn’t affect body weight. The analysis also saw an average of one percent reduction in fat mass but noted (rightly) that this probably isn’t a meaningful change. (10)
Except for one study (which noted a decrease in fat percentage with no change in body weight), DHEA supplementation has had no impact on the body composition of young, trained men or co-ed recreational athletes. (4) Some authors point out that the lack of effect in young people could be due to the short length of studies, which generally last four to six weeks. Four months of DHEA supplementation did enhance the effects of weight training in an elderly population. (6)
Higher Bone Mineral Density
A small body of evidence shows that long-term DHEA supplementation is associated with slightly higher bone mineral density (BMD) of the hip in elderly men and women. Still, more research is needed to confirm these findings. (8)
A recent meta-analysis reported that DHEA reduced cortisol levels enough to have clinical relevance (a meaningful application in the real world). The effects of DHEA on cortisol tend to be more pronounced in women, though, and most of the participants in this analysis were female (many of whom were postmenopausal). So, these results don’t apply to a large population. (1)
Lower Fasting Blood Glucose
According to an analysis that included participants with an underlying health condition, long-term, low-dose DHEA supplementation reduced fasting glucose. The change was minimal, though, and other markers of insulin resistance weren’t affected. (11)
What are the Risks of DHEA?
Even though DHEA hasn’t been shown to improve body composition or performance in young people or athletes, it is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). (3)(4)(5)(10) So, if you participate in a drug-tested sport, you should not use any supplements that contain DHEA.
A recent meta-analysis noted frequent reductions in HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) after long-term DHEA supplementation, but this was only apparent in women. The average reduction was minimal in most cases, but the authors noted a “clinical concern” in women with lupus whose loss of HDL was much more significant. (9)
Who Should Use DHEA?
DHEA is likely most effective for postmenopausal women and people over 60 years of age because this group experiences clinically-relevant changes in body composition and BMD with supplementation. The relatively larger elevations in testosterone experienced by younger women don’t translate to meaningful performance outcomes or body composition.
Since WADA bans DHEA, it should not be used by drug-tested athletes.
How Should I Take DHEA?
Most studies use doses of DHEA ranging from 50 to 100 milligrams per day, and these doses are safe for long-term use in the studied populations. Fifty milligrams per day appears to be the minimum effective dose to support BMD, and 100mg doses result in reliable elevations in hormone levels. These doses have also resulted in improved lean body mass in elderly populations.
Doses up to 400mg per day have been used safely for up to eight weeks in men, but 200mg per day reduced HDL cholesterol in women with lupus.
To reiterate: If you’re a drug-tested athlete, you should not take DHEA.
Circulating DHEA — the form that exists in our bodies — plays integral roles in muscular, metabolic, and cognitive health throughout our lives. Supplementation seemed like a logical intervention, and animal studies showed promise, but in practice, DHEA isn’t a fountain of youth or muscle mass.
Though it reliably elevates circulating levels of DHEA — and often testosterone, as well — any meaningful changes to health are pretty minimal, especially in healthy, young exercisers. It’s somewhat effective for producing minor improvements in body composition and bone mineral density in older individuals, but young athletes looking for an advantage should look elsewhere. Despite the lack of evidence supporting any performance-enhancing effects, DHEA is banned by WADA.
- Chen, H., Jin, Z., Sun, C., Santos, H. O., & kord Varkaneh, H. (2021). Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on cortisol, leptin, adiponectin, and liver enzyme levels: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomised clinical trials. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 75(11), e14698. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcp.14698
- Coelingh Bennink, H. J. T., Zimmerman, Y., Laan, E., Termeer, H. M. M., Appels, N., Albert, A., Fauser, B. C. J. M., Thijssen, J. H. H., & van Lunsen, R. H. W. (2017). Maintaining physiological testosterone levels by adding dehydroepiandrosterone to combined oral contraceptives: I. Endocrine effects. Contraception, 96(5), 322–329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2016.06.022
- Collomp, K., Buisson, C., Gravisse, N., Belgherbi, S., Labsy, Z., Do, M.-C., Gagey, O., Dufay, S., Vibarel-Rebot, N., & Audran, M. (2018). Effects of short-term DHEA intake on hormonal responses in young recreationally trained athletes: modulation by gender. Endocrine, 59(3), 538–546. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12020-017-1514-z
- Gravisse, N., Vibarel-Rebot, N., Buisson, C., Le Tiec, C., Castanier, C., Do, M. C., Gagey, O., Audran, M., & Collomp, K. (2019). Short-term DHEA administration in recreational athletes: Impact on food intake, segmental body composition and adipokines. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 59(5), 808–816. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.18.08845-X
- Gravisse, N., Vibarel-Rebot, N., Labsy, Z., Do, M.-C., Gagey, O., Dubourg, C., Audran, M., & Collomp, K. (2018). Short-term Dehydroepiandrosterone Intake and Supramaximal Exercise in Young Recreationally-trained Women. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(9), 712–719. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-0631-3008
- Hu, Y., Wan, P., An, X., & Jiang, G. (2021). Impact of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on testosterone concentrations and BMI in elderly women: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 56, 102620. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2020.102620
- Li, Y., Ren, J., Li, N., Liu, J., Tan, S. C., Low, T. Y., & Ma, Z. (2020). A dose-response and meta-analysis of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on testosterone levels: perinatal prediction of randomized clinical trials. Experimental Gerontology, 141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2020.111110
- Lin, H., Li, L., Wang, Q., Wang, Y., Wang, J., & Long, X. (2019). A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials of DHEA supplementation of bone mineral density in healthy adults. Gynecological Endocrinology, 35(11), 924–931. https://doi.org/10.1080/09513590.2019.1616175
- Qin, Y., O. Santos, H., Khani, V., Tan, S. C., & Zhi, Y. (2020). Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on the lipid profile: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 30(9), 1465–1475. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.numecd.2020.05.015
- Wang, F., He, Y., O. Santos, H., Sathian, B., C. Price, J., & Diao, J. (2020). The effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on body composition and blood pressure: A meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Steroids, 163, 108710. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.steroids.2020.108710
- Wang, X., Feng, H., Fan, D., Zou, G., Han, Y., & Liu, L. (2020). The influence of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on fasting plasma glucose, insulin levels and insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) index: A systematic review and dose response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 55, 102583. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2020.102583
- Xie, M., Zhong, Y., Xue, Q., Wu, M., Deng, X., O. Santos, H., Tan, S. C., Kord-Varkaneh, H., & Jiao, P. (2020). Impact of dehydroepianrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on serum levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1): A dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Experimental Gerontology, 136, 110949. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2020.110949
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